There are two starting points when considering Belladonna of Sadness: it’s an ‘adult’ animated film, and it’s a wild psychedelic head trip. If director Eiichi Yamamoto’s film was only these things then it would still be a fascinating curio, but thankfully it’s more than that, using these two niches to artfully explore themes of power, status and gender.
Belladonna of Sadness (original Japanese title Kanashimi no beradonna) was first released in Japan in 1973, the third and final entry in Mushi Productions’ “Animerama” trilogy of adult animated features. Its erotic story and experimental style was unsuccessful with audiences, leaving the film in obscurity until it began to surface in poor quality copies on the Internet, gaining a small cult following. This led it to the attention of the team from Los Angeles-based Cinelicious Pics, who identified a lost classic worthy of restoration, resulting in the film’s re-emergence, and first official release for Western audiences, in 2015.
Based on French historian Jules Michelet’s 1862 book La Sorcière, the film tells the story of Jeanne, a beautiful and pure peasant girl in medieval France. After marrying the earnest Jean, the newlyweds offer tribute to the local lord, who demands more of them than they can pay and instead insists himself upon the bride. On her return to Jean, the distressed Jeanne is visited by a small (and blatantly phallic) demon who recognises her wish for power and offers it in exchange for both her body and her soul. As Jeanne grows to appreciate this gift, she must also learn to live with its impact on the status quo of the village and her marriage.
The art of Belladonna of Sadness is spectacular, suggesting stylistic influences in common with popular Western psychedelic art of the era – the Vienna secession and Art Nouveau, as well as fashion illustration and commercial design. Unlike most animated features, the film allows its figures generous space in the frame, often placing them against a blank background or one of simple lines embellished with vibrant watercolours. It’s this space that gives the film much of its visual consistency even while using a dizzying variety of visual techniques for effect at different moments in the story.
While the film is visually breathtaking, it’s the soundtrack that drives the story, the voice-acting supported by narration both spoken and sung. There’s a dreamlike quality in the relationship between sound and vision, swaying around one another as if in a dance. The animation defies convention, often simply panning across a series of still images with little movement within the scene, the narration leading us forward. At other times, the visuals explode with colour and motion, urged on by jazz-rock freak-outs heavy with bass, horns and screeching guitar.
As a work of animation intended for mature audiences, a dazzling experience for the senses is not the only thing promised by Belladonna of Sadness. While certainly adult in its depiction of sexuality on-screen, the film rises above mere titillation through the fantastical and stunningly inventive animation of its sex scenes. Immediately from the events of the wedding night that set the plot in motion, sex is entwined with power, and as Jeanne gradually takes control of the power of her sexuality we’re challenged to consider how radical a notion this is for a woman, especially a poor one. It is in these sequences that the film is at its most psychedelic, wildly surreal and often grotesque in its imagery, both thrilling and uncomfortable.
It’s here that we reach the crux of Belladonna of Sadness’s continued resonance more than forty years after its initial release. At one point in the film Jeanne is cautioned that “God granted us our status. Ignoring that is against God!” It is unnatural to reject this position, even in the name of survival and in the face of injustice and cruelty, and it is Jeanne’s refusal to accept her place that brings accusations of witchcraft, of being in league with the devil. However, witchcraft here really is a tool of dissent, and the source of Jeanne’s empowerment. In Belladonna of Sadness, as in the modern world, female empowerment is revolutionary.
Even after the buzz of its restoration, Belladonna of Sadness exceeded my grandest hopes. To have the chance to see a lost film of such quality is a rare treat, and prompts us to wonder how many more such masterpieces might be awaiting similar rediscovery.